I was fresh out of boot camp when a fellow soldier stared straight into my eyes, perhaps trying to assess my sanity, and asked why I would make a choice to live in a nation threatened with annihilation. I had chosen to return to Israel, leaving the calm America I had lived in since I was six. Israel was relatively quiet, but the tension in the air caught me by surprise. Israeli television tries to make light of such fears, with the popular news satire show “Eretz Nehederet” (“A Wonderful Country”), showing Israeli survivors of a nuclear holocaust trying to find something to watch on television, but this looming fear is very real and present in Israel.
It was now my turn to serve in the Israeli military, the third generation of my family to do so. My grandfather had to drop out of high school to defend his homeland, Israel, from invading Arab armies whose leaders were publicly promising the country’s annihilation. My mother grew up in northern Israel where she was often awakened in the dead of the night with a warning of mere seconds to run to the nearest bomb shelter. She spent many sleepless nights huddled with others in a cold underground shelter, as the Syrian regime pounded her community with rockets. At 18 she was on the front line, in a guard tower, protecting Israeli villages from attack.
My grandmother, now an octogenarian, can no longer run to the nearest shelter, so when she leaves her house to buy groceries and Palestinian rockets target her city of Ashdod, she hopes for the best. At home at least she has a bomb shelter, as is the law for all new construction. Works great unless you ever need to use the bathroom. My village of Kissufim, where I spent the first years of my life, is routinely hit by indiscriminate rocket fire from Palestinian controlled areas, striking homes, kindergartens and my former preschool.
Russians who fled the discrimination and oppression of the Soviet Union, Persians escaping fanatical Islam, Iraqis fleeing pogroms, Moroccans leaving hatred, and grandparents surviving the Holocaust — these were the stories of the parents of my fellow soldiers. My unit was composed of children of refugees, who were thankful to have Israel as a safe haven to take them in. At boot camp I learned the ropes alongside a mosaic of Israelis, including Jewish refugees flown to safety from famine and discrimination in Ethiopia, and native Druze Arabs.
In a routine surprise drill against rocket fire, we took refuge under the closest stairwell. My fellow soldiers were shaken, stories of trauma and fear from their childhood surfaced, of growing up with rockets fired at their bedrooms and schools. What for me was an interesting experience — to hear firsthand accounts from them, having only read about it in the news — ruined their day; another reminder of running for their lives in search of shelter at fifth grade.
One soldier could not get up once the alarm ended, her face red and her eyes fixed on the floor as once-dormant memories were unlocked and reemerged. One time there was a warning of a possible terrorist in Tel Aviv; a fellow 18-year-old soldier, recounted his experiences of taking the bus to school in the fourth grade, when buses were blowing up every other day. Others around us joined in with their own personal stories of growing up in such an atmosphere. Much scarier than anything I feared in my fourth-grade suburban Massachusetts classroom.
My peers in the army discussed how they could not wait for the day that there would be peace, when they would not have to sacrifice two to three years of their lives for the military. Interspersed between talk about Israel’s version of shows such as “Big Brother,” and “Beauty and the Geek,” were seemingly normal conversations about needing to swing by the post office — not to mail anything, but rather to pick up the latest gas mask for themselves, their siblings and their parents.
Today, as I sit comfortably in Boston, it pains me to read how children on their first day of school were greeted with rocket fire. This atmosphere is not conducive to peace talks. The continuous threat of the annihilation of you and your family for merely existing are quite a stumbling block and barrier to trust.
How can Israeli politicians convince their people that leaving areas of the West Bank will bring peace, when six years after Israel destroyed her settlements in the Gaza Strip and completely retreated to the 1949 “cease fire” lines, she is still rewarded with rocket fire? Nowhere else in the world has a nation had its civilian population threatened with annihilation for over three generations. Nevertheless, while the Palestinian Authority refuses to negotiate and Hamas refuses to even recognize Israel’s right to exist, Israel continues to patiently wait at the negotiating table, as she has since independence over six decades ago.